I am standing outside Ca n’Alluny – the Far House, erstwhile home for almost 50 years of English poet Robert Graves, in Deià, a village in the rugged north-west of Mallorca. It was in 1929 that Graves was encouraged to decamp here on the advice of American writer Gertrude Stein, with this proviso: “Mallorca is paradise – if you can stand it.”
And could Graves “stand” it? “What Gertrude Stein meant was that Robert would need self-discipline to write here,” says his son William. In fact, Graves, who died aged 90, wrote prolifically until the last decade of his life. Of Mallorca the poet opined, “I found everything I wanted as a writer: sun, sea, mountains, spring water, shady trees, no politics and a few civilised luxuries such as electric light.” Strolling into the sunny garden of Ca n’Alluny, which bursts with olive, lemon and orange trees, I find it easy to understand why in the 19th century the likes of Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, author of the nine-volume Die Balearen, came to the golden isle.
And yet it was Graves who, like a pied piper, lured a host of 20th-century literary luminaries to the honey-hued hilltop village of Deià. “It’s true to say that my father inspired a generation of writers and artists to follow in his footsteps,” says William. These included Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, Roger McGough and Edna O’Brien, to name but a few.
But while the picturesque Deià and neighbouring Sóller valley are famous, far less is known about the literary and artistic heritage of the island’s agricultural interior. Now this less traversed area is enjoying a renaissance with the launch of Walking on Words (WOW), an initiative by Fundació Casa Museu, which manages three local literary museums. Seven beautifully scenic routes, all suitable to follow by car or on foot, have been created, incorporating villages and towns in the central plain – historically the preserve of only the most intrepid scribes. “Now visitors can easily explore less familiar areas of the island, rich in literature, local history and culture,” says Carme Castells, director of the project. The scheme, in four languages, includes a clever interactive app for smartphones. Because this countryside, in a nice fillip, is today home to a handful of small and relatively unknown hotels – ranging from the quirky to the breathtakingly pretty to one that brings an extraordinary visual-arts offering to the experience – I’ve chosen to explore various sections of different routes.
Glimpsing the WOW map, it’s evident that few literary titans visited the interior. All the same, the somewhat esoteric panoply of Spanish writers proves surprisingly edifying – but even more so the delightful discovery of those hotels, along with some fairly unexplored towns that vibrate with burgeoning cultural scenes.
In her 1907 travelogue With a Camera in Majorca British author Margaret d’Este wrote, “The interior of Majorca enjoys an almost perpetual immunity from tourists, most of whom are far from enterprising.” More than a century later, her words resonate as, scything a route eastwards, I drive along empty country roads, passing Elysian plains of rich vermilion soil, old stone windmills and orchards brimming with almond and fig trees. In wine-producing Binissalem, the splendid museum run by Fundació Casa Museu is dedicated to 20th-century Mallorcan novelist Llorenç Villalonga. Entry is free and during my guided tour I learn that the author remains one of the most revered novelists in the Catalan language. The visit is gratifyingly enlightening, not least for affording me the opportunity to rove a beautifully preserved, emblematic 17th-century property.
After a brief pit stop I head on, past rolling countryside, isolated farms and fields of wheat, to the Pink Pepper Tree Home Hotel. This inviting eight-bedroom rural oasis is owned by South African-born Glynn Jones and his Dutch partner Jacqueline Rozenhart. Its name, as memorable as the hotel’s signature pink peppercorn-infused G&T, was chosen because of Rozenhart’s passion for cooking and Jones’ love of trees and creating wooden sculptures. There’s a hushed and lovely courtyard, swimming pool and peaceful garden. The decor is eclectic and contemporary, with an emphasis on upcycling: artworks and chandeliers have been created by the couple from finds in antiques and flea markets, and exposed stone walls, white wooden beams and Velux skylights create a luxurious sense of light and space. Dining is a relaxed experience, with Rozenhart preparing an exquisite three-course menu three nights a week, using ingredients from the hotel’s orchards and the local market.
The nearby unassuming village of Lloseta, just off the WOW itinerary, holds some surprises. A white-stone-clad theatre sits in the town’s centre, home to an annual festival of poetry. Just a few streets away is the workshop of Teixits Riera, founded in 1896, the artisan maker of Mallorca’s characteristic ikat-style colourful cloth of flames. Here, too, is the restaurant of chef Santi Taura, whose devoted clientele books months in advance. Across the road, Santi’s brother Tomeu runs Vinàmica, a specialist Mallorcan wine store.
In sleepy Sant Joan in Es Pla, the bucolic core of the island, is the former ancestral home of Pare Rafel Ginard, a prolific 20th-century chronicler of Mallorca’s popular country verse. Run by Fundació Casa Museu, the sensitively refurbished house offers a fascinating insight into rural life a century ago, complemented by Ginard’s works, which underline the island’s rich oral tradition of storytelling and folklore.
To the south, through verdant pastureland and thriving vineyards, is Es Revellar Art Resort, a magnificent 600-year-old estate on the outskirts of Campos. I’d found it by word of mouth from local friends and had been amazed to learn that such a luxurious – and directional – venture was all but off the radar. Under the artistic direction of Roberto Alcalde, a former entrepreneur from Madrid, the resort’s spectacular gardens have been dedicated to land art, while in a historic smugglers’ cave and museum in the grounds is arguably the best private collection of primitive art in southern Europe. The property possesses a chapel crammed with medieval religious relics, and a library of historic books that includes a collaborative tome created by Picasso and Spanish novelist Camilo José Cela, a long-time island resident. Bedroom suites have individual artistic themes and are littered with sometimes priceless antiques. A first-class restaurant serves gastronomic menus using produce grown entirely on the estate.
With its inherent charm and almost total lack of artifice, Campos – on the fifth route of WOW’s itinerary – proves to be, for me at least, something of a microcosm of what makes the Mallorcan interior so appealing. Local artist Miquela Vidal sometimes opens her studio to visitors, and the museum of religious artefacts in the 19th-century church of Sant Julià proves a welcome diversion. Vintage and arty shops are popping up all over town, while one of the island’s leading chefs, Miguel Calent, offers exceptional fare at his much-fêted restaurant Ca’n Calent.
Some way to the west, I breeze by the ancient Talayotic site of Capocorb Vell and take the curving scenic road to the Sanctuary of Cura at Puig de Randa, which rises to a height of 550m. It was here in the late 13th century that Ramon Llull, Mallorcan mystic and writer, spent time as a hermit and purportedly found inspiration for his philosophical opus Ars Generalis Ultima.
Another WOW route to the northeast leads to Artà, an inland town referred to by English author Gordon West in his humorous 1929 book Jogging Round Majorca as “very not-interesting” and “enveloped in an air of poverty”. Today, it’s quite another story: Artà is full of stylish gift shops and cosmopolitan cafés. It is also home to ArtArtà, a museum of sculptures by artist Pere Pujol that depict fantastical characters from the island’s folktales, known as rondalles. First transcribed to print in 1896 by Antoni Maria Alcover, an author from neighbouring Manacor, the stories had run into 24 volumes by the end of his life.
A little further on, straddling a hilltop, is the 14th-century crenellated castle of Capdepera. The town of the same name is full of lean, steep streets, its limestone terraced houses jostling for space. Just off the main square is Tortuga, an artistic enterprise combining gallery, café and ceramics shop that is the brainchild of German Mallorca residents Elke and Markus Dombrowski.
Following the WOW route at this point would take me past the legendary Caves of Drach, described by Jules Verne in his novel Clovis Dardentor as “comparable with the most beautiful in the world”. But I’m making a brief detour to Hotel Can Simoneta, in Canyamel on the east coast – an idyllic and romantic outpost perched on a steep cliff face overlooking the sea. Can Simoneta’s 28 rooms, characterised by cool, neutral interiors and canopy beds, are spread between three historic buildings refurbished by renowned local architect Toni Esteva. The original 19th-century house, once owned by a priest seeking a curative in daily seawater baths, has its own access to a secluded rocky cove, and a spa is discreetly tucked away in the trees. Art is the name of the game here, with two impressive works by celebrated Mallorcan sculptor Joan Bennàssar displayed in the grounds. A colourful mural by Maria Morel Oliver hangs in the reception, while more sculptures by Artà-based Miguel Sarasate and other island artists are scattered throughout the hotel. Chef Pablo Tamarit offers a five-star menu in the tranquil restaurant overlooking the sea, while the two swimming pools and open-air Jacuzzis dotted about the gardens provide welcome refuge from the searing sun.
It’s worth noting that not every writer setting foot on Mallorca held it in esteem. DH Lawrence, who was less than enamoured of his time on the island, described locals pointedly as “unpleasant”. And in A Winter in Mallorca, French novelist George Sand offers a waspish account of her disastrous stay at the Carthusian monastery in the mountain village of Valldemossa with her tuberculosis-riddled lover Frédéric Chopin. “We have nicknamed Mallorca the ‘island of monkeys’,” she wrote, “for we seemed to be surrounded by these mangy, plundering yet innocent creatures.” (Though later she parts opinions with Lawrence, writing, “And yet… the Mallorcan countryman is gentle, kind, peaceful and has a calm and patient disposition.”)
For the vast majority of writers visiting or settling on the island from the 19th century to the present day, though, Mallorca has been regarded as, in the words of Stein, a “paradise”. The payoff of my enchanting literary (and, as it turns out, artistic) odyssey into the Mallorcan heartland was experiencing a sublime authenticity and unhurried pace of life I had feared were largely gone from the island – one that sowed a desire in me to return again as soon as I can.